Karajan conducts Wiener Philharmoniker: Tchaikovsky - Symphony No. 4

Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 4 (Wiener Philharmoniker, Karajan)

Conducted by Herbert von Karajan, the Wiener Philharmoniker (Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra) performs Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36.

A comment on youtube, from a user nicknamed “ComposerInUK”:

“What an outstanding performance of a genuine masterpiece. Tchaikovsky is, even today, underrated as a symphonist but on the evidence here it’s almost impossible to imagine why. He is NOT the Russian Brahms, he is a Russian composer making the symphonic form his own. Everything in this piece is perfectly balanced and judged -all the drama of the first movement, the love and tenderness of the second and the hilarious scherzo of the third: never has orchestration been more perfectly judged. And there is genuine joy in the finale. Let’s not dismiss Tchaikovsky and a gifted tunesmith. Let’s give him credit for being the innovative, inventive and genuine symphonist that he was. Bravo Karajan. Bravo Tchaikovsky…”

Nadezhda von Meck
Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meckthe, the dedicatee of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor. Photo: wikipedia

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 is written between 1877 and 1878. The first performance was at a Russian Musical Society concert in Moscow on February 22 (or the 10th using the calendar of the time) 1878, with Nikolai Rubinstein as conductor.

Tchaikovsky dedicated this symphony to his financial supporter, Nadezhda von Meck (10 February [O.S. 29 January] 1831 – 13 January 1894). She Russian business woman who became an influential patron of the arts, especially music. She is best known today for her artistic relationship with Tchaikovsky, supporting him financially for thirteen years, so that he could devote himself full-time to composition, while stipulating that they were never to meet. She also gave financial support to several other musicians, including Nikolai Rubinstein and Claude Debussy.

The symphony is scored for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, and strings.

Movements

  1. Andante sostenuto – Moderato con anima — Moderato assai, quasi Andante — Allegro vivo (F minor) The symphony opens with horns and bassoons sounding a loud A-flat in unison. After a descending line by the bassoon and low brass, the woodwinds and trumpets join with a higher A-flat. As the music solidifies into large, slow syncopated chords, Tchaikovsky unleashes the musical equivalent of lightning bolts: two short fortissimo chords, each followed by a long measure of silence. As the music ebbs away, the woodwinds hint at the main melody, which is properly introduced by the strings at the Moderato con anima. (The score at this point is marked “In movimento di Valse”, as it is written in 9/8.) The melody develops quite rapidly. Much later in the movement, the same A-flat is played by the trumpets. This movement is marked by continual introductions of the fate motif, the A-flat phrase. The motive serves as a separation between each section of the sonata—allegro form. At around twenty minutes in length in some performances, this is one of the longest symphonic movements by Tchaikovsky. It is also just short of the length of the remaining movements combined.
  2. Andantino in modo di canzona (B flat minor) This movement is introduced by the melancholy melody of the oboe. The music’s impassioned climax is a reminder of the grieving phrases that dominated the opening movement.
  3. Scherzo: Pizzicato ostinato — Allegro (F major) Strings play pizzicato throughout this movement. They are joined by the woodwinds later when an oboe’s long, high A signals the start of the A-major Trio section. Later, the brass instruments come in, playing very quietly and staccato. The three groups (strings, woodwinds, and brass) are the only groups that play; there is no percussion in this movement except for the timpani, as in the previous movement. It ends quietly with pizzicato strings.
  4. Finale: Allegro con fuoco (F major) Here Tchaikovsky incorporates a famous Russian folk song, “In the Field Stood a Birch Tree”, as one of its themes. In this movement, a hint of the A-flat of the first movement is present about halfway through, with the ‘lightning bolts’, with cymbals added, being much louder.

Sources